I visited the above exhibition with a friend on 21st October, 2015. It was a fascinating experience and an assault on the senses. Not having visited this type of event before, I was unprepared for the volume of people shuffling slowly in queue-like fashion past each exhibit. I found this frustrating and restrictive. It made it difficult to stop and examine the things that really sparked my interest and occasionally prevented me from moving on as quickly as I would have liked. It certainly didn’t lend itself to sketching (had I been so bold!).
However, to focus on the positive. I have mentioned before that I don’t get out enough and I must. It was so lovely to be in the Victoria and Albert Museum, I wanted to stop and absorb all manner of things, to sit and stare, to soak up the colours, the atmosphere, but this visit was primarily to see the Fabric of India Exhibition with a friend, so another visit will have to follow. First a coffee in the cafe, set in the original Morris, Gamble and Poynter Rooms. We were in the Morris room, with its glorious decor in particular I enjoyed the plaster-work patterned with leaves, flowers and berries.
On to the exhibition. As I found it difficult to make notes, or capture any visual information, I have since bought the hardback ‘The Fabric of India’ published by the Victoria and Albert Museum to accompany the exhibition. It is a comprehensive volume containing a wealth of information and photographs, an ideal reminder of the day, but in no way compares to the visual splendour of seeing the exhibit in person.
Although I couldn’t help but admire the artistry and workmanship of the exhibits, I am not drawn to the opulence of many of the designs, so the most interesting items of the exhibition to me were in the first section where natural materials were displayed and dyeing, weaving and printing techniques illustrated.
Here, the variety of cotton textiles, the information about the strong-hollow bast fibres extracted from hemp, mallow, jute, flax, nettle and ramie was fascinating. Silk skeins from tasar, eri and muga moths in natural yellows, golds and browns were begging to be handled.
I was happy to pass by metal-wrapped silk thread, pausing only to admire the artistry of pattern, being enticed to look ahead at the fine weaves of pashminas, made from light-weight fibres spun from goat hair.
With the exception of indigo which I love, I have resisted natural dyeing in the past, but was drawn to the red and yellow dyes, lac, cochineal, kermes, madder, chay & turmeric and the mordants they require.
I wanted to linger over the wrap-resist dyed cottons and tie-dyed silks, admired block printed, resist-dyed and mordant-dyed fabric. Less enthused by those overlaid with gold leaf, ground mica or added mirror-glass pieces.
Three things stuck with me after the exhibition, without needing the book as a prompt, and the first was a set of samples showing some of the 14 stages of ‘ajrakh’ production (a word I have looked up). This is a complex process of selectively colouring cloth after it has been woven and ‘involves block-printing a resist to achieve white designs alongside red and indigo blue’ (Crill, 2015:pp 47). Shown within this blog from The Asian Fashion Journal.
The weaving of natural fibres into relatively simple patterns was interesting, less so the complex, pictorial designs and those with silver-gilt or silver-wrapped thread.
The second of my favourites was a cotton wall hanging with cotton and silk applique. Used to decorate a room for a celebration, boldly decorated fabric covered the walls in reds, black, yellow, simple geometic patterns of chevrons, diamonds, flowers and more separated processions of elephants, horses, camels and people. Also shown within this blog from The Asian Fashion Journal. The same blog also includes an amazing video of Ari embroidery, not to be missed.
I was amused to wonder what had led people to embroider with beetle-wing cases and couched gilt silver wire, but have no desire to produce something so ornate.
There were some incredibly detailed, embroidered silk garments which showed immense skill, beautiful to have witnessed, but unlikely to inform my practice.
My third and final favourite was the Tipu Sultan’s Tent seen here in theguardian. Cotton, block-printed, mordant-dyed and resist-dyed, an immense structure with billowing triangular panels forming a peaked ceiling approximately 3.5 metres high with wall panels measuring 2 metre off the ground and a 250m perimeter, truly magnificent.
A thoroughly enjoyable, exhausting day in which I was exposed to India’s glorious textiles and concluded that the simpler, natural fibres, the processes of resist-dyeing, block printing and bold, limited colour palettes continue to appeal to me more than the opulence of gold and silver adorned, complex, pictorial, stitched and woven designs.
The Fabric of India (2015) edited by Rosemary Crill published by The Victoria & Albert Museum